UK: THE TALENT SPOTTERS. - In the world's most successful companies, recruitment goes beyond which interview technique or psychometric test to use - it's viewed as a competitive activity in its own right and a crucial part of the overall strategy.

by Malcolm Wheatley.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the world's most successful companies, recruitment goes beyond which interview technique or psychometric test to use - it's viewed as a competitive activity in its own right and a crucial part of the overall strategy.

After an exhaustive preliminary job interview, John Smith (not his real name) sat down to fill in a lengthy psychometric test. A few days later, his prospective employer invited him - along with 11 other candidates - to a hotel for a two-day selection exercise. Divided into syndicates of four, the candidates ran through in-tray exercises, solved problems and made presentations, closely watched by members of the employer's management team.

One exercise involved each syndicate of four candidates deselecting two of its members from the assessment process - and then giving a presentation to explain their reasoning. Passing this hurdle, Smith had to endure a further hour-long interview with two potential colleagues who hamfisted their way through a good guy/ bad guy routine before he was approved for a final interview with the chief executive. Offered the job at last, he promptly turned it down, put off by a recruitment process that he regarded as 'amateurish', and 'structurally flawed'.

'It's surprising how cavalier businesses are when it comes to hiring people,' comments Richard Boggis-Rolfe, chairman of the Norman Broadbent recruitment company, NB Selection. 'Organisations which wouldn't think of using anything but the best lawyers, management consultants or advertising agencies can be devastatingly superficial in their approach to recruitment.' The results often speak for themselves, he says: 'confrontational and ultimately ineffective interviews full of trick questions and amateur psychometric testing.'

An unashamed advocate of the traditional approach, Boggis-Rolfe regards an interview as an opportunity to explore beyond the curriculum vitae and find out what candidates have actually done (as opposed to the positions they have held) and to make an intelligent assessment of the candidate's personality and likely fit within an organisation, based on a relaxed discussion. He deplores the fact that this once-straightforward interview process has now become an assault course of startling proportions, requiring today's applicants to submit to test upon test, evaluation after evaluation.

He is not alone in having doubts about the psychometric approach, in fact other critics go further, pooh-poohing psychometric testing altogether.

Consultant psychologist Dr Steve Blinkhorn, who boasts an impressive range of blue-chip clients ranging from British Airways and Mars to the Foreign Office and the Commission for Racial Equality, claims that 'the predictive value of personality tests is frequently overstated and wrongly assessed'

So what recruitment tactics should an organisation adopt if its managers are sceptical that sitting interview candidates down for a comfy chat is the way to gauge potential? If you probe the recruitment practices of some of the world's most successful businesses - and acknowledged top-flight recruiters - a fascinating picture emerges.

One feature to distinguish such companies is that their approach to recruitment is a strategic one which extends beyond the interview room and the nuts-and-bolts decision about which psychometric test to employ. Recruitment is seriously viewed as a competitive activity in its own right, and thus deserving of the attention of the people at the top: it isn't something deputed to the personnel function. At Microsoft, for instance, chairman Bill Gates regards recruitment as one of his top priorities and devotes a surprising amount of time to it.

With such organisations, recruit-and-retain is a favoured approach. Procter & Gamble, for instance, is known for its develop-and-promote-from-within culture, in which high-calibre graduates are taken on, developed, and groomed for better things. 'Management vacancies are never filled externally,' confirms spokesperson Dominique Keegan. But about the techniques that are deployed by the company's recruiters to identify talent, secrecy reigns.

'It's not the sort of thing that we choose to discuss: we regard it as a source of competitive advantage.'

Other leading companies are more forthcoming about their recruitment techniques, but the basic recruit-and-retain model is encountered again and again, as is the perception of recruitment as a strategic tool. Well-regarded recruiters and well-regarded businesses have the knack of selecting and keeping the right people, it seems. 'We prefer to grow our own professionals,' says Elaine Cole, vice-president of human resources at investment bank JP Morgan. 'We've noticed that other organisations don't invest in developing people in their first few years to the extent that we do. We like to think we have a higher retention rate as a result.'

Mary Boss, director of business school Insead's Career Management Service, is directly involved in placing the school's MBA graduates with many respected and successful businesses: over 100 of them visit the campus twice a year to interview potential recruits. 'Our graduates are prepared for tough interviews,' she says. 'They complain when companies send along a mediocre interviewer who isn't very sharp.' Some employers stand out as especially skilled, including Fidelity and JP Morgan in the financial sector; Bain & Co, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group among the consultants; and, in industry, Pepsi-Co, SmithKline Beecham and United Technologies.

At SmithKline Beecham, notes Gary Fyfe, who heads the company's UK recruitment function, the management development process is being re-engineered to tie up more closely with the acknowledged excellence of the recruitment activity. Despite being what Boss describes as 'one of the best recruiters that we see, and getting better', the company has been failing to exploit the talent it has acquired fully. At present, some 70% of management vacancies are filled externally but Fyfe expects to see this drop to around 20% as the company hones its competitive edge by getting better at slotting the talented people it recruits into subsequent vacancies that arise.

Smart recruiting also carries important public relations and marketing overtones. 'The best thing we can do for our competitors is to hire badly,' says David Pritchard, Microsoft's Seattle-based director of human resources.

Cole of JP Morgan talks in terms of 'the three Cs': clients, competitors and colleagues. The premise is that the recruitment process is an opportunity for a company to showcase itself to rejected candidates - or shoot itself in the foot. 'People may subsequently go on to work for competitors, become customers or influence other potential recruits,' she says. 'We want people to walk away with a warm, fuzzy feeling about us. If we get that wrong, then in the long term, it can hurt us.' 'Even if people don't wind up working for us, they are still potential ambassadors for Microsoft: buyers, specifiers, users etc,' adds Pritchard.

What interest recruiters such as Microsoft and Bain & Co is candidates' performance during case interviews or behavioural event interviews. The two are not quite synonymous but the basic idea, according to Crawford Gillies, managing partner of Bain's UK practice, is to face people with a situation where 'they don't know the answer in order to see how they react'. Recruiters are forced to change their questions quite regularly as word gets around: Microsoft's 'How much water flows through the Mississippi each day?' and 'How many tennis balls are there in the US?' are by now well known. Bain and JP Morgan ask a combination of questions such as these ('How would you establish how many petrol stations there are in London?') interspersed with questions based around work-related scenarios - the behavioural event: 'A client wants to do such and such ... What do you do?' The key, says Pritchard, is to see how people go about solving the problem. 'We look for deductive reasoning and common sense,' says Gillies. Bain, says Gillies, is looking 'for people who have the right skills, and people who share our values: a problem-solving mentality, and a passion for getting results'. At Microsoft, adds Pritchard, 'we ask ourselves: does this candidate have "the smarts"? Are they inquisitive?

Do they have passion? Passion and inquisitiveness,' he enthuses, 'that's a magical combination.'

As at Bain, where interviewers consult each other between interviews in order to identify fresh areas to probe, Microsoft will teach people something in the morning and grill them on it in the afternoon. At JP Morgan, a one-day assessment centre blends group tasks and presentations with 'reasoning exercises and yet more numerical testing'. Candidates' cultural fit, leadership potential and teamworking ability is pulled out as a by-product, but subjectively, rather than through any attempt at psychometrically-based objectivity.

NB Selection's Boggis-Rolfe believes that such assessment techniques work well for these companies because of the cultures they operate. 'There's a huge diversity in corporate cultures,' he acknowledges. 'In some cultures, such questions work because the ability to deal with them effectively is part of the culture itself. You need to ask them in order to see whether people will fit in.'

Which takes us full circle. Some organisations, it seems, make successful recruiters because they share a particular culture and a common belief in the importance of the recruitment process. These are also successful organisations. But which comes first: the recruitment process, the culture that emerges from the recruited individuals, or the success that offers the organisation some freedom to break away from the rest of the herd?

Please note that your response will be assessed for fluency, speed of response, reasoning prowess and logic flow.

Selection Strategy - To recruit and retain.

- Drive the recruitment process from the top. Don't leave it to HR professionals: if people are a business's greatest asset, get personally involved.

- Target particular institutions and sources of new recruits; make clear the sort of business you are, and the sort of culture you have so people of the right calibre put themselves forward, thus improving the hit rate of the recruitment process.

- Recruit for the long term: hire bright people with potential to grow.

Learn from those who leave why they chose to go.

- Be cautious about an over-reliance on psychometric tests as a substitute for tough interviews with potential peers and superiors. The best people to judge new recruits are those already out there doing the job.

- Case interviews and behavioural event interviews can tell a lot: it's not the correct answer so much as the right thought processes which count.

- Think of the impression your recruitment process makes on rejected candidates and regard them as potential ambassadors for the business.

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